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State Regulators Move to Protect Workers From Wildfire Smoke

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Maria Elena Amaya poses for a portrait with a N95 air mask in Berkeley, in November, 2018. The Butte County Camp Fire caused poor air quality throughout Northern California.  (J.P. Dobrin/KQED)

Wildfire smoke isn’t great for anybody, but a new rule California regulators vote on today recognizes that it’s particularly dangerous for workers while they’re on the job.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board will decide whether to require employers to offer workers additional protections under specific circumstances when air quality is poor. The move comes after especially active fire seasons in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s all of California, and it’s not just a certain time, it’s all year round,” says attorney Nicole Marquez, with the advocacy group Worksafe.

Small and often toxic particles of pollution in smoke — also called PM2.5 — cause chest pain and coughing, trigger asthma attacks, and boost hospital admissions during wildfires. Under the state’s proposed rule, employers who cannot reschedule shifts or move their workers away from smoke hazards must provide them with N95 filtering masks when air quality reaches “unhealthy” levels on the air quality index.

“So that way, they can use those respirators,” Marquez says, “and not be told that you have to go to Home Depot to buy an N95 when your employer should really be providing that for you.”

As fires still burned last December, Worksafe, the California Labor Foundation, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation together petitioned the state’s Department of Industrial Regulation about the health risks of wildfire smoke on outdoor jobs such as construction, landscaping and farming. In March, the board approved consideration of an emergency rule. Thursday, the board will consider both whether an emergency is happening, and if so, whether a temporary rule should take effect for 180 days.

“It’s an emergency because fire season is upon us,” Marquez says. “Workers are already being exposed to some of this fine particulate matter while they’re working outside, and they don’t have this protection.”

Harmful wildfire smoke has long been common in the Central Valley and in Southern California. But last year Northern California fires smothered San Francisco in more than a week of days deemed unhealthy on the AQI, and bad air hovered for almost two weeks in San Jose and Santa Rosa.

Quantifying the hazard of wildfire smoke is difficult for geophysical reasons: Smoke interacts with weather and wind patterns, for example, which is why the Bay Area’s inversion layers have locked pollutants in place for longer periods of time. And particles of the same size can contain different combinations and different amounts of toxicants.

At the same time, research is establishing stronger evidence that breathing smoke bears long-term health impacts as well as the acute ones during the fire itself. A study published last year projected that premature deaths associated with wildfire smoke could double nationally by century’s end.

Trade groups and the Chamber of Commerce have not objected to the rule in principle, but have critiqued it as “impractically vague” and broad in scope. State workplace officials are already moving toward a permanent regulation, with a meeting scheduled August 27th.


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